Atlanta Falcons take another big step

Matt Ryan and the Falcons have grabbed a place among the NFL's elite teams. Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

ATLANTA -- To fully understand how far the Atlanta Falcons have come in three seasons -- or even one year -- all you really need to know is this: The ninth victory of a season no longer is a reason for major celebration.

In the moments after Sunday's 20-17 victory against Green Bay, there was no mention that the Falcons had just clinched their third straight winning season. When the Falcons got their ninth win last season, it was a milestone because they had just completed back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in what was then a 44-year franchise history. At 45, the Falcons have fully hit maturity.

"You know, I didn't even think about the winning season until you brought it up,'' said general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who came in with coach Mike Smith in 2008 and began turning around the franchise. "That's totally a sidebar right now, another cherry on top.''

The Falcons got their fifth straight win and the ninth in their past 10 games. They played a franchise record fourth straight game without a turnover and they did it against what might have been the best opponent they've seen so far.

Is there any doubt that, at 9-2, the Falcons are one of the top teams in the league this season?

"There's no question we need to prove more,'' Dimitroff said. "This was our most complete game so far, but we need to play complete games consistently.''

In a year in which their marketing campaign is "Rise Up," there's no doubt the Falcons are standing very firmly. But they're not standing still.

"We've come a long way in three years,'' said middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, who was drafted along with franchise quarterback Matt Ryan in 2008. "We expect to win now. But this is just another step along the way.''

They've made a habit of winning close games, especially at home, and this one fit the profile perfectly.

"Just another day at the [Georgia] Dome, huh?'' Smith said a few minutes after Matt Bryant made a 47-yard field goal to give the Falcons the victory. "It's part of the makeup of what we feel you have to do to be successful. You have to be able to score points in the fourth quarter.''

The Falcons absolutely had to score points in the final quarter to win this one. Make that the final 56 seconds to be exact. That's when Aaron Rodgers hit Jordy Nelson with a 10-yard pass to tie the score 17-17.

A nice kickoff return coupled with a face-mask penalty on Green Bay gave the Falcons the ball at the Green Bay 49-yard line. With Ryan completing four out of his five pass attempts, Atlanta moved the ball to the 29-yard line. That's where Bryant came on, with 13 seconds remaining, to give the Falcons another last-minute victory.

The Falcons have lost only three games in the Georgia Dome in three years and haven't lost at home this season. They've lost only once at home with Ryan as their starting quarterback, and that came in 2008. That kind of success could come in handy if the Falcons have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

If the season ended right now, they would. With wins against Green Bay, New Orleans and Baltimore, it's not at all a stretch to imagine this team playing late into January or even February.

"We've got confidence once we're in here that we're going to win,'' said running back Michael Turner, who rushed for 110 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. "We're ready for the next step.''

The next step comes next week. Although Atlanta has the lead, New Orleans and Tampa Bay remain within striking distance in the NFC South. The Falcons travel to Tampa next Sunday.

"We've got to stay on top,'' Turner said.

For one of the few times all season, Smith talked about how he saw good things from the offense, defense and special teams on the same day. But the coach also was quick to point out that it wasn't a perfect game.

"It's great to get a winning season,'' Smith said. "But our expectations and goals are a lot higher than that. We're progressing on our journey.''

It's a journey that started when Smith and Dimitroff took over the mess left by Bobby Petrino and Michael Vick. The first winning season was a surprise. The second was a bit bitter because it came without a playoff berth. The third might be the one in which the journey truly reaches its destination.

"The last three years, we have all grown together,'' defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux said. "Everybody's comfortable with the system and the coaches and with each other. I think everybody's starting to recognize how good we can be.''

Even before the win against Green Bay, there was talk of the Falcons being the best team in the NFC. Maybe even the best team in the NFL. The latest evidence doesn't take anything away from either of those arguments.

The Falcons have been careful not to declare themselves the best at anything, but you get the impression they're starting to see that they might end up in that category. At least now, they're willing to admit they think they are "among'' the best.

"I think so,'' Lofton said. "We're just going to go out and keep winning. It really doesn't matter who's the best now. It matters who's the best at the end, and I think we can be that team.''